Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Much of ancient Chinese thought is characterized by its practical orientation. The early Chinese thinkers seem to have been preoccupied with the devising of political and social formulas to meet practical and pressing problems of their time; they gave little attention to pure abstraction. However, the six chapters that remain of Gongsun Longzi (originally a fourteen-chapter work) are almost exclusively devoted to metaphysics and logic.

Gongsun Long had one of the few bisyllabic Chinese family names—Gongsun. A leader of the School of Names, he was a court entertainer who amused his audience with his outstanding oratorical and argumentative skills. His opponents, whose works provide a vague outline of Gongsun Long’s life, accused him of artfully using words merely to win arguments, never to convince people completely. However, Gongsun Long’s own book shows that he was not arguing for argument’s sake but was driven by a zeal to “rectify the names” in quite the same manner as was Confucius. At least one ruler valued Gongsun Long’s views enough to give him an important government appointment, and the philosopher spent most of his life around different princes to whom he offered his advice on how to govern. His personal political fortunes waxed and waned in proportion to the confidence he could win from his patrons.

The primary concern of the School of Names was an investigation into the “names of things,” or into what lies behind a name. In Gongsun Longzi, Gongsun Long quite succinctly presents a summary of the problems that he and his fellows treated with tireless persistence. All these problems seem to center on the key question of the distinction between the universal and the particular, between the abstract idea as the essence of things and the concrete things themselves as objects of sense-perception.